Casting LIght on Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night

Philip Koch, Upper Story: Sunlight, pastel, 5 1/2 x 11", 2016

One of the best things about my serving as the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) for this year is the opportunity to go and paint from some of the same areas Charles Burchfield used for his sources. I was up in Buffalo for the Residency last week.  

I went to downtown Buffalo and worked from a building that inspired one of his best known paintings, Rainy Night, below. Burchfield's painting to me is deliciously evocative of the moodiness of the city at night. I did several drawings of the building, beginning by making a drawing of it sheltered from the January winds in the Public Library directly across the street. 

Charles Burchfield, Rainy Night,  watercolor, 30 x 42", 1929-30
San Diego Museum of Art

Overall I  did six drawing, including my pastel of the building's elaborate mansard roof in yellows at the beginning of this post and this one below in cooler violets. I probably will be turning a least a couple of them into larger oil paintings.

Philip Koch, Upper Story: Twilight, pastel, 5 1/2 x 11", 2016

The pastels were based on this charcoal.

Philip Koch, Upper Story, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2016

And it in turn was done from this drawing of the entire structure.

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night Building, vine 
charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14", 2016

What inspired my turn to working from an urban subject was that Tullis Johnson, one of BPAC's Curators and the Manger of its Archives, showed me a box full of the preparatory studies Burchfield made to help him conceive of the composition for Rainy Night. I was hooked. Tullis told me where I could find the building Burchfield had worked from and off I went.

While at the Archives I photographed the following eight of Burchfield's preparatory studies.  

Burchfield would go to remarkable lengths to amass information about the details of the scene.  Yet in the end what I find most intriguing about his watercolor is how he orchestrates all the details into an overall whole. He's masterfully selective in picking out only a few of his details to become focal points in his composition. I wonder if this came out of his experiments on the watercolor itself as he slowly worked it towards its completion or whether he had made additional studies of the overall composition that I didn't see.


  1. Hi Phil,
    I just found your piece here on "Rainy Night". Very nice - both your work & analysis. What you said: "He's masterfully selective in picking out only a few of his details to become focal points in his composition." This applies even more to his painting of the natural world. It was what struck me first when I began looking at his work years ago: just a few details, but they are the *right* details.
    Best regards, Patrick Harrington (& Nancy Patz)

  2. Hi Patrick and thanks for your comments. You say it well. I have been having a ball with my trips to both Buffalo and to Salem, OH for the Burchfield Penney Residency. Have been able to get my hands on hundreds of Burchfield drawings that the public never sees. Exhaustive but stimulating.

  3. Philip,
    what is the address of the original location?

    1. Alexander, sorry but I don't recall the street names or the address, but it is catty-corner across the street on the north side of the downtown branch of the Buffalo Public Library. It would be easy to look up.

    2. 36 Broadway Street, Buffalo 14203. At the corner or Ellicott and Broadway.

    3. Thank you for providing the building's street address!


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